The many ‘Devices’ of Dessa
Creativity doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for Dessa. The Minnesota-based polymath (born Margret Wander) has made a name for herself as a singer, rapper, songwriter, author, poet, entrepreneur and educator.
From writing for New York Times Magazine and performing with the Minnesota Orchestra to contributing to the Hamilton Mixtape and teaching at the McNally Smith College of Music, the sole female member of the Doomtree hip-hop collective has never pigeon-holed her artistry.
Chime, Dessa’s February-released fourth album, once again synthesizes her musical range from intricately orchestrated ballads to hard-hitting raps, all of it bound by pointed, honest, and confidently delivered turn of phrase.
The album was, in part, inspired by a joint collaboration with neurofeedback clinician Penijean Gracefire and a team of neuroscientists from the University of Minnesota that sought to create a protocol for falling out of love by changing emotions via modifying brainwaves.
In addition, Dutton will release Dessa’s first hardcover collection of essays, My Own Devices: True Stores from The Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love, in September.
PACIFIC recently spoke with the multi-talented performer while she was stuck in a 15-paasenger van on its way from Boise to Salt Lake City.
PACIFIC: Chime is such a dynamic record. How does it work in the live setting?
MARGARET WANDER: I’m a 5-piece on stage this time around. We’ve kind of re-imagined the live set for Chime. There are multiple voices for those full, sweeping harmonies that are on the record, live drums, and a blend of synthetic sounds as well, to capture the production.
Well, you’ve certainly been able to make it smaller, or build it up over the years.
Yeah, I’ve given up on the idea of a singular presentation. It’s a lot more work. But it makes me far more confident in figuring out what artistic iteration serves each project best. This time, some of the songs are piano driven, some rely on beautiful harmonies, and some are straight bangers. So we need to play a lot of parts.
Those variances have always been a hallmark of your work.
I guess for me, in any given year, or even on any given day, there’s not a homogenous, single sound. Sometimes you feel hard and ready to fight, sometimes you feel deep, and I’m always trying to reflect that range of emotions I feel as an organism moving through it all.
Do you ever have difficulty matching creative impulses or ideas with vehicles to express them?
Well, I think all, or most of all, of the ideas I’m most excited by are connected by words. And there are always things that happen in life that are going to affect the writing. But the good thing about working in multiple disciplines is being able to create essays, poems, and songs that I’m proud of. The hard thing isn’t figuring out where the idea goes, it’s figuring out how to market it. That makes the business side of everything a bit more difficult, but it definitely benefits the art side of things.
Your new book, My Own Devices, will be released soon. Does all the focus shift to that once it’s out?
After the Chime World Tour is over, my plan is to set out on a book tour. After that, after giving a full, focused, period of attention to both projects, my hope is that there is some dovetailing. I’m hoping there are some people who like the record that might want to get the deeper stories behind it – and that there will be people who connect with the book that might become interested in the music that inspired it. I’m hoping they connect. We’ll see.
And I know that you’re no stranger to being an author, but things like having Dutton publish it, in hard cover, has to make it special.
It does. 100%. This isn’t some kind of a new decision, made on a whim, to pick up a pen. But you’re right. This is a different order of magnitude. Maybe even two or three orders of magnitude (laughs) larger than any literary undertaking that I’ve done so far.
When I first got the news that Dutton was going to publish it, there were unadulterated chills of excitement – a cork popping in my mind. But it also felt very validating. After 10 or 12 years of sending out manuscripts, finding someone who knows their s**t that really wants to work with you is amazing. But I also know that there is a big responsibility that comes with an opportunity like this. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.
Your own case study and neurology is so much a part of Chime. Has the connection between the two continued?
For me, the most exciting part has been the opportunity to speak to scientists in different fields. Now that my project got a bit of ink and was covered by a few national publications, I’ve been able to do things like visit with scientists at Georgetown about tinnitus and geek out on that. I’m proud of my case study and my collaborators were rad, but the best part has been asking, ‘Is there something else we can do?’ I’ve always been a science nerd. It’s exciting now to have a way to connect that to the rest of my professional life.
Beyond wrapping up the tour and giving the book its proper attention, do you have anything upcoming that you can talk about?
My next big musical project is another big collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra this October. I made my debut with them last year and one of the most exciting parts about it was designing a cross-disciplinary experience with music and things like custom cocktails and thermal-activated glassware. So right now, I’m working on what the narrative will be for the next one.
Dessa with MONAKR
When: 8:30 p.m. May 8
Where: Soda Bar, 3615 El Cajon Blvd., Normal Heights.
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